Get off the Grass

Lawns. What are they good for? Absolutely nothing, as far as some urbanites are concerned and I recently joined their club. It had dawned on me that cultivating my lawn was a waste of time, space and money. It required endless hours of maintenance and gave me nothing in return. Heck, I didn’t even have garden gnomes or lawn chairs on my grass; in fact the only time I inhabited my turf was to weed-whack or mow.

 I also realized that lawns negatively impact the environment, devouring resources and polluting at the same time. Mowers and trimmers are responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, and many of us “protect” the grass from invading plants with pesticides that eventually wind up in our water supply. Research also shows that 29 of the 30 most commonly used lawn pesticides are toxic to birds, fish, amphibians and bees.

 The sprinklers and hoses we use to keep our property green use up an increasingly precious resource.

 Like an invisible wall, a lawn serves to isolate us from our neighbours, too. At the same time, we make our yards look like theirs by planting the same plant species—here on the west coast, it’s usually a mixture of fescue and rye. Boring.

 Meanwhile, the 100-mile diet has increasingly become dinner table conversation and we are advised to buy local, organic and seasonal whenever possible. Irritated by my lawn’s demands, it suddenly occurred to me that a 100 yard diet was within my reach.

 So I replaced my lawn with an edible landscape, and I recommend my fellow lawn-loathers do the same. Not only will I soon reap the rewards of my potager (a fancy word for vegetable patch) on my plate, this productive plot of earth is also aesthetically pleasing.

 Here’s how to do it at your place.

 Design

First comes the design, keeping in mind what you want to plant, of course (amount of sunlight is a factor). Because my front yard is high-profile, I put a lot of emphasis on how it would look. Rather than regimented and rectangular raised beds, I decided on a curved shape to match the existing lines of the garden path and the garden perimeter.

 And I vowed to take out nothing but grass: I have a large weeping birch in my front yard so my potager only covers half the lawn, but still gives me 100 square feet of new edible garden space. I also incorporated a small existing lilac bush into the design, but more on that later.

 With my friend Denys King’s help, we drew curved lines with dolomite lime onto the grass so it married with the existing garden line and defined the edge of the potager. Once satisfied with the shape, we cut the curved line with a spade. Next up was the grueling bit: we (well, mainly Denys) turned the soil over and waited a day for it to dry. Then we shook out the sod so that almost all the dirt came out — the only thing we took away was the grass.

 Then we used recycled brick edging, set snugly inside the curved line. We turned the soil over (this is when you must revitalize—see “Soil” ), added a large bag of peat moss, five bags of manure and hosed the mound down. Denys put together a horizontal cedar trellis (for fruit and vegetable vines) and I purchased round patio stones–made of the same material as the central path–for access to garden maintenance.

 Plants

 I decided to think about my vegetable patch as if it were a flower bed — I’d establish perennials, shrubs and trees as the “bones” of the potager and fill in the soil with seasonal annuals for year-round harvest.

 What you decide to plant will determine the potager’s maintenance level. Fruit trees and perennial herbs are substantially less work than vegetables. However, I’m already growing vegetables in my back yard and I’m familiar with my growing zone—what works and what doesn’t. I settled on a mix of perennials and annuals.

 I avoided falling into the design trap of planting everything in threes. It was okay if there was only room for one variety, or if three looked sparse, I chucked in one more.

 Because of the organic garden shape, I decided to plant vegetables “free style” so the potager would look less farm-like. I planted low-growing herbs such as creeping thyme and wintergreen (which also acts as an insect repellent) in between the stepping-stones and scattered arugula seeds (fast growing) around each stone.

 The afore-mentioned lilac bush will make certain spots a little shadier, but it now serves a function. It anchors a trellis for Malabar spinach (a climbing vine with purple leaves and edible seed pods) on one side. I tied fishing line (invisible) to its branches on the other side to encourage and secure more vines, yet to be determined.

 Because I started this project late in the year, the annuals are cold weather crops—all those veggies your mum couldn’t get you to eat. At Vancouver’s Garden Works, I asked resident horticulturist Allan Reid for advice. He suggested kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts and a few cabbages that will grow into December. The only difference between the familiar cabbages and the ornamental ones is the arbitrary term “ornamental,” according to Reid so I chose a few colourful varieties.

 I also bought four corn plants. “Don’t forget to plant them in a block so they pollinate,” Reid advised.

 He pointed out more exotic vegetables: black pepper, eggplant, radicchio and gai lan. “The Italians are now planting radicchio and endive and the Asians are planting anything ‘choy’— crunchy vegetables for stir-fry,” said Reid. I looked around the aisles and sure enough, customers’ shopping carts were crammed with seedlings—in the middle of summer.

 To grow along the fence, I chose a few spaghetti squash plants interspersed with bunchberry and raspberry vines. There was even room on the other side of the fence to plant a row of peas. For the trellis next to the lilac, I bought a slow-growing, creeping raspberry and for ground cover, salal with edible berries and coastal strawberry.

 Soil

Six weeks before planting (if you plant a summer crop, that’s some time around Easter) and again in August when you’re beginning to harvest everything, I was told to revitalize the soil.

 “Search for something certified organic with the symbol OMRI (Organic Material Research Institute) — an international standard,” advised Reid. “Sea Soil is commonly used in Western Canada, and for the rest of the country use Bell’s products.” (Put about an inch of it over the area: one bag of Sea Soil will cover about 12-15 sq. ft.)

 Give the earth a good watering –for about one hour — and start sifting. “Most people make the mistake of digging straight down and flopping the soil over,” said Reid. “You need to get oxygen into the soil so use the same technique as if making a meringue or fluffy pancake batter: more oxygen means good fungus which means the nutrients are liberated into the soil a lot quicker.”

 Materials

25 recycled bricks       n/c

1 treated cedar plank and strips         $28.00

12 round patio stones (Home Depot) $1.50 each x 12

5 bags mushroom manure $5 per bag x 5

1 bale peat moss        $13

Sea Soil           $7.00

Plants  $75.00 (or less if you start from seed]

 TOTAL            $166.00

Labour $0 – $400 (do-it-yourself plus)

 I thought I had outgrown my hippie, back-to-the-land phase years ago, but now it’s hip to be self-sustaining. It is so rewarding to serve veggies still warm from the sun to friends and family from my potager. And my neighbours aren’t in the least offended. On the contrary, their reactions suggest there may be cabbages sprouting in more than one front yard on my street next summer.